Southwest Louisiana lacks mental health professionals — a new program hopes to change that

A statue of a cowboy on a bucking horse stands in front of a rounded gate with the inscription McNeese State University.
After suffering severe damages from hurricanes in 2020, much of the McNeese State University Campus in Lake Charles, La., has been restored on Monday, April 15, 2024. Photo by Alena Maschke

When Wasilat Adeoluwa, a 30-year-old international student in the graduate counseling program at McNeese State University, arrived in Lake Charles, the city was still in shambles after five federally declared disasters damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes, businesses and large parts of the university’s campus.

“My folks were worried,” Adeoluwa said of the reaction among her friends and family in Nigeria when she told them she would move to the weather-battered city to complete her graduate degree and become a mental health counselor.

Now, two years later and roughly a semester away from graduation, Adeoluwa is actively seeing clients at the Imperial Calcasieu Human Services Authority (ImCal) for several hours a week. Those visits and assessments are part of the required clinical hours students have to complete in order to graduate and start the process of becoming a licensed professional counselor.

Completing this placement can be difficult for students. Few providers who take interns offer payment for their hours and finding anyone to host them can be a challenge of its own, especially in southwest Louisiana. With the help of a grant, McNeese and the local human services authority are hoping to change that.

“We have a lack of behavioral health providers,” said Tanya McGee, executive director of ImCal. All but two parishes in the state are declared mental health professional shortage areas by the federal Health Resources & Services Administration, but southwest Louisiana suffered an additional blow when storms in 2020 destroyed a local psychiatric facility and drove away two prolific private practitioners.

Then, after the dust had settled, this loss of resources collided with increased mental health needs in the community, as survivors traumatized by the loss of their home and life in a city in tatters came to look for help. 

“It wasn’t until everyone got re-stabilized that we really started seeing the mental health effects,” McGee said. “We were just really mentally fragile as a community.”

So McGee and a group of other mental health providers and public health officials got together to find solutions for the mounting mental health crisis in this disaster-stricken part of the state.

The situation looked grim. Finding licensed professionals willing to relocate to “America’s Most Weather-battered City,” as Lake Charles was dubbed by the Weather Channel, was difficult. “Nobody wants to move here,” McGee said.

Instead, the group decided to focus on growing local talent and confront a confounding trend they had noticed among students at McNeese who were on their way to entering the profession. “A lot of them were dropping out right when it was time to do that clinical internship,” McGee said. 

For students, working 700 hours without pay presents a financial challenge. For providers, paying a licensed counselor to supervise interns does too, nevermind paying the interns themselves.

That’s how the idea for an incentive program was born and, with the help of a grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation, McNeese just started its first cohort of 10 students who, together with the providers who host them, receive funding throughout their placement. 

“It’s a way to incentivize individuals to take our counseling students because really, there’s not a lot of incentive,” said Dr. Kevin Yaudes, assistant department head of the Department of Psychology and Counseling at McNeese. Providers receive an incentive of $2,000 per intern, interns receive a stipend of $8,500.

“We’re really looking to ensure that our students have really great site placements, and to engage Southwest Louisiana,” Yaudes added. Once they are placed and working with patients, Yaudes hopes that providers too will see the value of growing local talent and the quality of professionals the university can produce — with a little help from the local community.

“If you just invest the time and a little bit of money on the front end, you could potentially generate a long-term provider for yourself,” said McGee. Her agency is one of the partners hosting — and paying — interns with the help of the grant, and she said she’s confident in the program’s potential.

“We did it as an initiative for our community, to help our community, but on the back end, it’s going to help ImCal too,” McGee said. “It’s going to help us recruit, it’s going to help us get good, licensed staff.”

The first cohort started in January and over the next three years, the initiative hopes to place 30 students in paid clinical internships, with the goal of keeping as many of them as possible in the area post-graduation. 

Adeoluwa said she’d like to stay in Lake Charles, if she can find an employer who will work with her to transition from a student visa to a professional one. Coming from the bustling metropolis of Nigeria’s capital, Lagos, she’s come to enjoy the calm, quiet, slow-paced life in southwest Louisiana, and she’s settled in well over the last two years — at school, work and her local church.

“I found a community,” she said. “I would love to stay here.”